Monday, August 1, 2011

How did I end up HERE?

It all started when I was born.  I hope you have plenty of time.  Maybe you should get a sandwich or something.  OK?

The next thing that happened was that my father, an eminent Physicist at a major university, began to take a personal interest in my education. I was 5.

"To begin with, you have to understand that everything around us is made of atoms."

"Really?  There's a kid at my school named Adam."

"No, not  Adams, A-T-O-M-S.  Everything you can see, feel, smell, taste or touch is made of them.  They're like hard little spheres.  And very, very, very small."

"I seriously doubt that," is what I might have said, had I possessed more than a 5-year-old's powers of expression.  While it made sense to me that sand might be made of hard little objects, as it almost certainly was, could everything be like sand?

OK, dirt for one.  It's just very fine, ground-up sand, after all.  And rocks - that's probably sand that's been glued together somehow.  And plants.  They grow out of dirt, and so it's to be expected that there's a fair amount of dirt involved. (Grown-ups actually WANT us to eat more vegetables??? Ewww.  Perhaps they don't realize they are made of dirt - I should point this out next time Mom serves me Brussels Sprouts.  She'll be so pleased.)

Even with my limited experience with the world at that age, it seemed ridiculous that everything in it could basically be made of the same stuff.

As we walked along the suburban street to our home in Arizona, past yards with trees, shrubs and lawns, some of them being watered with sprinklers attached to garden hoses in the late afternoon, I had a sudden inspiration.

"Aha!  I know something not made of atoms.  Water!"  It seemed obvious to me - just try to pick up some water in your hand - it will all run out.  It will leak out of the smallest holes imaginable and can be spread out as thin as you want.  If sand and dirt have atoms, water couldn't possibly.  Sand and dirt are dry, whilst water is wet. Wet is one thing you can't make no matter how cleverly you re-arrange the dirt. I was triumphant!  I felt elated!  I felt smarter than my Dad the Professor!

For only about 11.9 seconds, the time it took Dad to assure me that water, too, consisted entirely and exclusively of atoms arranged in a certain way.  Then I felt cheated.   Cheated and deprived of a satisfactory explanation.

Later that night while engaged in my life-long habit of laying awake thinking, I remembered playing with an ice cube.  It started out hard, like a rock.  Then it melted and became very wet. Water.  Then I recalled the existence of Volcanoes.  Every kid is fascinated by the fact that hot molten rock can occasionally, nay frequently (to judge by how often this is mentioned kids' science books) be vomited out of the earth.  Molten rock, implying that rocks, when hot enough, can also melt, flow like water, and be wet.  Maybe there's something to this "atoms" business of Dad's after all.

The next day at kindergarten, I happened to mention to two of my chums that everything in the world, everything you can see, feel, taste smell or touch, even your very self, is made up of atoms.

"There's a kid in our class named Adam," the older one helpfully offered.

(Sigh)  I wondered at the time if talking to people was always going to be like that.

I've discovered it almost always is.

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